[February 5, 2021] I learned this important leadership lesson the hard way. My Infantry unit deployed to Ft. Pickett, VA in the late summer of 1983 for a “shake down” exercise. As Platoon Leader, I placed our crew-served M60 machinegun on our right flank and had my men dig in. My commander didn’t like the placement and told me to move the foxhole 10 feet to the rear.
I was a new lieutenant but not a new soldier. I knew the ramifications of his order. First, moving the foxhole (correctly called a fighting position) really pissed off my men. It had taken them more than six hours of backbreaking labor digging the position and camouflaging it. Now, their work was for nothing and they would have to re-position the gun. Time was wasted, sleep was lost, and my men knew it. Their morale took a hit.
Second, moving the foxhole helped our soldiers to lose respect for our commander. His reputation was already poor and my platoon knew I had the correct machinegun location. Their stereotyping of army officers as over educated, inexperienced, uncaring dweebs was reinforced that officers are only interested in furthering their careers.
Third, when our commander told me to re-locate the fighting position, it was a clear message that our unit’s leadership really didn’t care about the soldier. Uncaring leaders are the worst example of leadership in action. When an Army officer doesn’t care about his soldiers, everyone knows it, everyone’s job is now just a job. Motivation is lost.
I “ordered” my men to relocate the foxhole. But, I told them their job was to critique my ability to dig a machinegun position by myself to military standard. I started to dig. Midday in the summer in Virginia is hot and humid. As I dug, first one sergeant, then another picked up a shovel and began helping. As word got out, more soldiers arrive to assist. Soon I was asked by one of the machinegun crewmembers to stand aside to let them finish.
I stood there amazed. These young Infantrymen, many not yet 19 years old, understood something profound. Leadership means taking responsibility for your actions. In their eyes, I showed them that I took full responsibility for the commander’s orders and was willing to back it up with action. Once they knew of my commitment, it was time for them to be part of the solution.
Their morale had been restored and their respect for officers improved. One of our new privates said, “Sir, we know you mean well, we know what to do, please make sure everything else goes well; we’re counting on you.” Wow, what maturity? When I began digging the new gun emplacement, my intent was to finish it. My effort was not for show. You can’t fake credibility and my men knew it.
Of course, the foxhole is a metaphor for any task assigned by any leader. My advice to leaders is, don’t move the foxhole. Don’t move it and don’t change it, especially if a move is unnecessary or if it does no harm where it is located.